As the world continues to commemorate World Health Day which was on the 7th of April 2019, we want to weigh in on the organic, fresh produce debate.
If you’re familiar with our content you will know that we promote organic farming and diet as well as access to foods grown organically through our weekly veggie box delivery service. We do this to promote health, especially for people with lifestyle diseases, and to advocate for better food systems in South Africa.
When the subject of organic fresh produce or just any organic products comes up, usually the cost becomes a point of debate. Technically, organic farming is not intended to save money but to boost soil and water conservation and lessen environmental pollution. The fact that the organic produce tastes like your childhood foods is a big bonus, not to mention the fact that some people have solved major health issues with an organic diet.
In weighing in on the debate, we look at what makes organic fresh produce cost more than the conventional produce. If you’ve ever wondered about the reason for the premium price tag, read on.
Less chemicals, more labour
Since organic farms don’t use pesticides, synthetic fertilisers and other chemicals that reduce the cost of production, they have to hire more staff to do the manual labour, such as hand weeding. The extra time dedicated to the production, storage, processing and handling is costly.
Organic farms practise refined crop rotation systems, which help to suppress weeds, maintain soil health and nutrients and control pests. This old- fashioned system “will cycle through cash crops (such as vegetables), cover crops (grasses and cereals) and green manures (often legumes). The exact sequence of crops will vary depending on local circumstances, with the critical design element being an understanding of what each crop contributes and takes from the soil. For instance, nitrogen-depleting crops should be preceded by a nitrogen-fixing crop”. (www.permaculturenews.org.) This also results in farms not being able to grow profitable crops as often as they want, whereas conventional farms use chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers which result in high yields in a short space of time.
Not using pesticides and synthetic fertiliser means there is a significant number of crops that are lost to pests and disease. The absence of chemical preservatives in organic farming means that organic produce has a shorter shelf and storage life.
No growth enhancers
Conventional farms use growth enhancers, like GMO seeds, which shortens the growth period. Organic farms don’t allow this, so crops take longer to reach maturity, delaying the sales, and the time it takes to care for the crops becomes costly – time is money.
Most organic crops are transported in smaller batches, because farms are smaller and they tend to produce less than conventional farms. Additionally, the produce is usually from farms outside the urban areas, and this cost is passed on or shared with the customer.
Obtaining organic certification is a costly exercise as it is done by an independent body. In South Africa currently it is only international companies who do the certification. The process usually involves soil tests, and it takes the soil a few years to get to the level required. The facilities may need to be modified to qualify for organic standards, as well as accurate daily record keeping, which requires manual labour. The whole exercise costs thousands of rands, and there’s an additional annual inspection fee. Fortunately, in South Africa small-scale farms can join the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) which eliminates the high cost of certification and is fully backed by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM – Organics International).
As a matter of principle, one of the standards in organic farming is fairness, and farms are encouraged to be fair in employment conditions and wages. As part of the PGS audit, farm worker employment contracts are highlighted, and there are usually discussions between PGS members, i.e. farmers, retailers and other stakeholders about fair pricing, which influences wages. That said, the goodwill and commitment shown by staff at the farms we source our produce from can never be measured by wages.
While we actively promote organic fresh produce, we are also well aware of the limitations around eating or buying organic, which includes the cost, access, supply and household food insecurity in South Africa. However, it is important to highlight that eating fruits and vegetables as part of one’s daily diet is what really matters, whether it is organic or not. It is also important to highlight that the South African Food-Based Dietary Guideline (FBDG) lists low fruit and vegetable intake as one of the risk factors that leads to premature deaths cause by lifestyle diseases.
I challenge you to learn more about the real cost of not eating organic food.